On May 17, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that it is unconstitutional to sentence someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime committed under the age of 18. The Court found the sentence to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment if a youth “did not kill or intend to kill.”
Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said, “To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society requires the sentencer to make a judgment that the juvenile is incorrigible. The characteristics of juveniles make that judgment questionable.” Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, 560 U.S. _ (slip. op. at 22) (2010)
The ruling entitled Terrance Graham, the petitioner in the case, and hundreds of others sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes committed as children, to be resentenced and required them to receive a “meaningful opportunity for release.” This was the first ruling outside of the death penalty context, where the Court held that age—child status—is relevant to the Eighth Amendment analysis of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the majority, “An offender’s age is relevant to the Eighth amendment, and criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants’ youthfulness into account would all be flawed.” Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, 560 U.S. _ (slip. op. at 25) (2010)
As in Roper, the Court cited international practices in its consideration of basic principles of decency and noted that the United States stands alone in the world in imposing this extreme sentence. Like the death penalty for children, the Court noted that the life-without-parole sentences imposed on youth violate international human rights laws.